The IFTF Blog
“Toward A Public Social Science” (2011)
“The social sciences deal with humanity’s most pressing problems, but there are barriers between practitioners and the public. We must restructure these disciplines from the ground up. In times of economic and political distress, the social sciences must become more relevant and useful by devoting their attention to society’s major problems.” Thus opens a fascinating essay penned early in 2011 by Herbert Gans, one of America’s most renewed sociologists. (And author of The Urban Villagers, perhaps the best book ever written on the social impacts of slum clearance)
Toward A Public Social Science is a call to arms to de-geekify a field that has become incestuous, arcane, and detached from the reality of society. Gans points out all that is wrong with academic social science – its over-emphasis on theory, disdain for fieldwork, the penalties scholars pay in tenure review for doing policy work instead of refereed articles. He identifies four areas where reform is needed to protect those that would apply their methods to the problems of society – “in university departments; in university administrations; in the disciplines themselves; and in the government agencies and foundations that fund most social science research.”
This is an important treatise, given the sweeping social change associated with global urbanization and the spread of information and communication technology into every facet of life and the built and manufactured environment. The social sciences, especially sociology is on the brink of irrelevance, or at least a major transformation as new data-driven inductive methods usurp the spotlight.
Three thoughts occurred to me as I read the piece.
First, the social sciences ought to look for inspiration to the sweeping change in biomedical research, especially the rise of the so-called “translational” model. Translational approaches seek to break the dichotomy between basic and applied research, creating a continuous process of collaboration from “bench to bedside”. Social scientists cannot operate in an ivory tower, they need to be constantly learning and testing their ideas against real world observations. They need to see their subjects not just as guinea pigs, but co-creators of understanding about the world. If doctors can do it, social scientists can too!
Another source of inspiration is urban planning, which draws heavily on the social sciences, but does so opportunistically and with an eye towards harvesting what’s immediately useful for understanding the problems of cities. In my academic career, I’ve been based in various urban planning departments, but have frequently studied with “pure” social scientists – economists, social scientists, and cultural geographers. It’s always a useful process to go back to my department and explain to students and colleagues what I’ve learned. Many planning departments have long experience with the kinds of reforms Gans suggests for social sciences – such as encouraging alternatives to refereed publications as accomplishments worthy of tenure.
Finally, I’ve been reading an awful lot of Patrick Geddes lately, whose call to develop “Civics As A Applied Sociology” over a century ago in Victorian England has deeply shaped the way I am thinking about global urbanization and how we might fix it. Geddes was a biologist who helped launch sociology as a formal field, but was rather quickly marginalized as theorists took over – for many of the same reasons Gans identified in this essay. Much as today, in his day rapid urbanization was creating many pressing problems. Geddes, like Gans, believed that addressing the problems of society was a primary calling for social scientists. Perhaps we are coming full circle, and are on the cusp of a new Renaissance of applied social science.